Planespotter 'spies' sent back to jail

by ROSS BENSON, Daily Mail

Hopes of freedom for the British planespotters charged with spying in Greece were dashed again last night.

After a degrading and humiliating day the 12, including a grandmother, were told they face at least ten more days in prison while the case is referred to a higher court.

Three weeks since their arrest at an air base, they had all confidently hoped that the public prosecutor would accept their protestations that they were in Greece to look at aeroplanes - not to spy.

There was a gasp when they were told they would be sent back down while three judges decide whether to commit them for trial.

'I can't believe this is happening,' said Perdita Norris, a nursery nurse whose husband Paul is one of the 12. 'How can they manacle my husband and lead him away as if he's a criminal? I'm very worried about their mental health. The stress they are facing is enormous.'

The Britons face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.

The day began when they were dragged into court in handcuffs in this Peloponnese town, surrounded by an eightman armed escort of SWAT squad policemen.

'This is shocking,' said Steve Rush, a 38-year- old greenkeeper, from Caterham, Surrey, as he was bundled into an elevator and taken to the

second floor to be interrogated by public prosecutor, Evangelos Ioanneis.

One by one they were led into his office to tell the same story - that they were here to look at aeroplanes, that they had written permission from the Greek Ministry of Defence and a faxed letter from a senior brigadier in the airforce inviting them to attend open days at military airfields.

'For goodness sake, this is just a hobby, nothing more,' said Wayne Groves, a railway manager from Tamworth, Staffordshire.

The prosecutor clearly did not believe them.

Like most Greeks, he finds it incomprehensible that anyone should choose to spend their leisure time taking down aeroplane numbers and ticking them off against the numbers in their reference books.

Yannis Zacharias, lawyer for the 12, blames the United States for their predicament.

'The new American ambassador, Thomas Miller, must have been the manager of a security firm in a previous life,' he said.

'Ever since he got here he's been complaining to the Greek government about their appalling security.

'After September 11 the Greeks decided to do something about it. These unfortunate people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.' Last night the 12 were driven back - again in handcuffs - to the local police station. Today they will be herded into cages in a prison bus and driven to their jails.

The men will be locked up in Nafplio, 80 miles outside Athens. Lesley Coppin, the 51-year-old grandmother who thought she was coming to Greece for a belated honeymoon with her husband Paul, is being taken to Coryallas, the notorious top- security jail near the Port of Piraeus, to be incarcerated with prostitutes and murderers.

'I can't believe this is happening to me,' said Mrs Coppin, who married in Februfourary. 'The ridiculous thing is that I don't even like planespotting. I only came on this holiday for a break from the housework. Instead I am locked up in prison.'

The 12 include the manager of an airfreight company and a BT manager.

From the British viewpoint the charges sound utterly absurd. One of the Greek airforce bases they are accused of spying on is Megara, which is where they film the top-rated Greek soap The Silent Skies, following the life and loves of Greek airforce officers. When the 12 asked for a copy of an episode to show in their defence they were told that it was 'classified'.

'That's ridiculous,' said Gary Fagan, 28, from Leicestershire. 'It's like saying Coronation Street or EastEnders is top secret.'

Steve Warren, the son of Lesley Coppin, said he was 'devastated' the group had not been released.

'I can't imagine the feelings they must be going through now,' he said. 'I just feel so angry and frustrated. I was expecting my mother at least would be released. She has had a terrible time and just wants to come home.

'We have had constant reassurance from MPs and the Foreign Office that it would all be over but again they have been kept in custody.

'I can't understand why they need more time when it is quite obvious they are all innocent.'

Mr Warren, added that any information the group had in their notebooks was readily available to anyone with a vague interest in planes.

'You can find out everything about what the Greeks have got in the way of planes on the internet. All these guys have in their notebooks are the plane numbers.'

The Foreign Office said the remand was 'disappointing' in the light of Tony Blair's personal call last week to his opposite number Costas Simitis.

But no fresh representations to the Athens government were planned last night.

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